The Theological Differences Between Godly Play and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Issue XXV July 2018

by Victoria Schwartz

With this paper Victoria Schwartz introduces us to the theology and philosophy that inform the content and methodology of Godly Play, created by Jerome Berryman. While his work took the form of some materials used for religious formation created by Maria Montessori and Sofia Cavalletti, those materials hold a theology informed by Dr. Samuel Terrien and a philosophy informed by Irvin D. Yalom. The differences in the presentation of and reflection with these materials is quite deliberate, diverging from both the theological content of Sofia Cavalletti and the methodological approach of Maria Montessori and Gianna Gobbi.

The foundations of Berryman’s work are respectfully explored and presented, and the related theology and methodology are compared to those found in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The paper will help the reader present a comparison of the two  methods that will help parents and parish staff understand the theological choice before them as they consider Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Godly Play for the religious formation of children.

While still in college, Victoria Schwartz began a children’s formation program for the families in a college ministry.  A graduate of Agnes Scott College, Victoria received state certification in Early Childhood and Elementary Education.  She has founded children’s formation programs in four churches; two of those are Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atria. In 1993, Victoria began working in a CGS atrium and persuing  catechist certification in all 3 age levels.  She is a founding board member of the Atlanta Area CGS Regional Group and a consultant and speaker on children’s formation.

“I just love Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Godly Play!” This was the comment I heard when I was speaking on CGS at a diocesan ministry fair.  I’ve heard variations of that sentiment many times. The casual onlooker sees two classrooms that look very similar, filled with hands-on materials that form the basis of the lessons. Descriptions of the two models also sound very similar.  It’s easy to conclude that the two methods are more alike than they really are.

To add to the confusion, Godly Play is often presented (incorrectly) as the Episcopal/Anglican or Protestant version of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Also, Jerome Berryman, the founder of Godly Play, refers to Sofia Cavalletti, the founder of CGS, as a “third-generation Montessorian” and himself as a “fourth-generation Montessorian.” This, perhaps unwittingly, makes it seem as if Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is an older, outdated version, and Godly Play is the new, improved program.  

When I first heard of Godly Play, I was already a CGS catechist.  I was intrigued by a program that was billed as similar to CGS, yet easier and quicker to learn.  As I investigated Godly Play, I found that it had several dissimilarities when compared to CGS. Most concerning and significant to me were the theological and philosophical distinctions.  These were not Catholic/Protestant, as had been suggested.  As I researched the theological and psychological foundations of Godly Play and compared it with those of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I found that the two methods are indeed more different than they appear.  

Dr. Samuel Terrien and the Elusive Presence

Jerome Berryman’s theology is deeply influenced by the work of Dr. Samuel Terrien, who was a theologian and professor at Union Theological Seminary.  Berryman states that he chose Terrien’s approach to biblical theology as the foundation of Godly Play, and he often references Terrien’s book, The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology.  In The Elusive Presence, Terrien proposed a biblical theology in which God’s presence, rather than God’s covenant, is the center of Biblical faith. This presence remains elusive and is often felt as absence. Terrien argues that the hiddenness of God becomes a means to access the divine presence, while preserving God’s freedom. 

Although his focus is primarily on the Old Testament, Terrien carries this central theme of the elusive presence of God into the New Testament with the theology of presence, and not the covenant, being the unifying theme between the two testaments. For Terrien, God’s presence has dominance over God’s covenant. In Godly Play, this theology gives preference to the individual’s experiences of God over God’s covenantal work in sacred history.   

Existential Psychotherapy

Berryman’s second major influence is existential psychotherapy, particularly the work of Irvin D. Yalom. Yalom combines the insights of existential philosophers and existential psychoanalysts.  In his book, Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom discusses at length the fear of death and of children’s anxiety about death. This resonated deeply with Berryman, whose childhood experience of a fear of death shaped his adult work and life.  Berryman recounts a vivid childhood memory, in which he lay in bed and a sudden overwhelming anxiety of death caused him to cry out for help. This first awareness of death shook him so powerfully that it is still foundational to his view of God as an adult. In shaping his views on the psychology of dealing with death, Berryman may also have been influenced by Terrien’s book Job: Poet of Existence, which speaks of fear of death and Job’s dealing with the reality of death. Berryman seeks to use religion as a therapeutic tool to help children deal with the fear of death, as well as with the other existential limits posited by Yalom.

In addition to death, Yalom also identifies three other existential limits: 

  • our fundamental aloneness or isolation
  • our freedom (free will) and its corresponding responsibility
  • and meaningless/a need for meaning. 

Existential psychotherapy is concerned with comprehending and helping to alleviate the anxiety and depression caused by dealing with our existential limits.  It seeks to do so in part by promoting experiences of spirituality, transcendence, and awe, resulting in self-actualization.

In Celebrating Passages in the Church, Berryman states, “Children need religious language to deal with their existential limits, but this is more than an educational issue. It is an ethical issue.  Human beings are born into a situation limited by death, fundamental aloneness, a threat of freedom, a need for meaning, and other existential issues. These existential edges to life limit, but also define us.”  

Berryman combines Terrien’s ideas of the elusiveness of God with the therapeutic approach of existential limits posited by Yalom and existential psychotherapy.  From this, Berryman creates an approach in which the spiritual life is the process of going from a negative state to a positive state–being confined by our existential limits to making meaning of our limits, and from searching for an elusive God to an experience in which “you come near to God and God comes near to you.”  Accomplishing this depends on the children’s ability to “play at the edges of one’s knowing and being, so as to discern creatively meaning and purpose in life.”  Hence the name “Godly Play.” 

Berryman’s theology as the source for Godly Play lessons 

Terrien’s Biblical Methodology

  1. At the beginning of a sacred story lesson, the storyteller may say, “In this story, we continue seeking the elusive presence of God.” And in the teaching materials, this reference is often made, for example: “In a sacred story, God is the main character, and the People of God are encountering God’s elusive presence.” (In contrast, a CGS catechist always stresses the revelatory nature of God by inviting the children to hear with her what God is saying to us in the Holy Scriptures.)  
  2. The mystical encounter between God and his people is the basis of faith.  For example: “Prophets are people who come so close to God and God comes so close to them that they know what God wants.”
  3. Berryman chooses sacred story presentations using the pattern of sacred stories explored in The Elusive Presence. This means, since Terrien was an Old Testament scholar, that most of the Godly Play stories are from the Old Testament and the stories involving Jesus are more limited.                                                              Sofia Cavalletti waits to introduce the Old Testament to children until they are at least 9 years old, because children younger than that are not developmentally ready to understand the influence of history and culture on the text. Cavalletti’s observation is that younger children cannot perceive the theology in the Old Testament stories or their relationship to sacred history.
  4. Because God is elusive and does not act in history or reveal himself through covenant, there is no reference to sacred history in Godly Play. In contrast, Sofia Cavalletti bases CGS on the covenant God makes with God’s people through God’s gifts and our response. Berryman states that this is a basic theological difference between his work and Sofia Cavalletti’s.  
  5. If God does not break into history in discretely identifiable events, who then is Jesus? Berryman seems reluctant to say, and often does not even identify Jesus by name in the lessons. For example, in the lesson The Parable of the Mustard Seed: “Once there was someone who did such amazing things and said such wonderful things that people began to follow him around.”  Jesus is never identified in the lesson as this “someone.”  In the CGS, if Jesus is the speaker or actor, he is always identified as such. Furthermore, the parables of the Good Shepherd and the True Vine are introduced as parables where Jesus himself says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” and “I am the True Vine.”
  6. Godly Play is primarily theocentric, not Trinitarian. The main image of God is the creator, consistent with Terrien’s Old Testament emphasis. In CGS, the primary image of God is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, Son of God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sofia and her colleague, Gianna Gobbi, observed that it was the image of the Good Shepherd that the children were most drawn to. Sofia says that in the atrium, the most important thing that happens is that “we grow in our knowledge of Jesus, the Christ, the Good Shepherd, and in his love for us, and that we grow always more capable of responding to that love.” Trinitarian theology is the wellspring of CGS. 

Existential Philosophy and Existential Psychotherapy 

  1. The purpose of the Godly Play lesson is to make meaning of your experience.  That work is entirely open-ended, which means:
    1. Unlike CGS, there is no lesson objective stated and no doctrinal content specified. The meaning of the lesson is entirely whatever the child (or group of children in discussion) makes of it.
    2. In CGS, the presentations are short and focus on the essential message of the Scripture or liturgical moment. There is no essentiality in the Godly Play presentations, because who knows what the child will find meaningful? Long stories from the Old Testament are told in their entirety. Extraneous and extra-biblical material is put in to make the story “interesting.” For example, in the Holy Family (Nativity) lesson, “This is the cow.  This is the cow who was surprised when she came to her feeding trough, the manger, and instead of her breakfast, there was a little baby in it.”
    3. All presentations are done in a group in Godly Play, as making meaning is done in the community and through discussion.  In CGS, the nature of the presentation and the age of the child govern whether the presentation is given to one child, a small group, or the whole group of children. The focus is on which format most helps the child to work with the materials and to respond in meditation and prayer.
    4. Without any clear idea of the theological points that are appropriate for the different ages of the child, there is no reason to separate the children by age.  The wondering questions and discussion are not differentiated by age. In a smaller group setting, all children are given the presentation together.  
    5. Wondering questions are not designed to meditate on the doctrine of the presentation, as in CGS, but to facilitate making your own personal meaning.  
  2. Themes of danger or fear are incorporated into the lesson, in order for the children to confront their fears and existential limits. For example, nature is often depicted as being threatening, as in this lesson on Abraham and his family: “The desert is a dangerous place.  It is always moving, so it is hard to know where you are.  There is little water, so you get thirsty, and you can die if no water is found.  Almost nothing grows there, so there is almost nothing to eat.  In the daytime it is hot and the sun scorches your skin.  In the night it is cold.  When the wind blows, the sand stings you when it hits you. People wear many clothes to protect them from the sun and blowing sand. The desert is a dangerous place.  People do not go there unless they have to.”
  3. The light of Christ is not depicted as something unique, as in CGS, but as something that happens in all encounters with God. The light is seen as being a product of “coming near to God.”  When a candle is about to be extinguished after a group presentation, the snuffer is held over the flame for it to fill with smoke.  Then the leader lifts it, and the smoke rises and begins to spread out.  While doing this the leader says, “I am going to change the light.  Do you see how the light (of the prophets, of the mother Mary and the father Joseph) is just in this one place? I am going to change the light so that it can be in every place. Do you see how the light is not gone?  It is changed.  It is not in one place. Now it is spreading out, getting thinner, to fill up the whole room. The room is filling up with the light (of the prophets, of the mother Mary and the father Joseph.)  Anywhere you go in this room you can come close to them today.”  

Learning Religious Language

In Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, learning religious language serves a communal function.  Religious literacy is a stepping stone to understanding Scripture and to participating with understanding in the liturgy, leading to an ever-deepening faith.

For Berryman, learning religious language is not religious literacy. The purpose of religious language is to identify and reflect on personal and individual experiences of God. In Godly Play, teaching the Christian language system involves play, the imagination, and the creative process as tools of individual experience.

In describing his approach to religious language, Berryman distinguishes four genres of religious language: The Sacred Story- Telling the Story So Children Can Become the Story; Parables – Entering with Wonder to Live the Question; Liturgical Action – Marking Life, Time and Space so Children Can Know the Holy; Silence – Showing the Sound of Silence in an I-Thou Relationship. In reflecting on the sacred stories, parables, liturgical actions and silence, children make meaning of their lives. 

Wondering Questions

Wondering questions are used very differently in Godly Play than in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.  The wondering questions in CGS are designed to reflect back to the Points of the Christian Message (doctrinal statement) and the direct aim (the goal of the lesson.)  The questions are open-ended in that they encourage meditation and wonder on the Biblical text just read. 

Berryman has created sets of wondering questions for each genre of religious language, and the questions are designed to help children confront their existential limitsand make their own meaning of the story presented.  This purpose means that the questions are more experiential and open-ended, without reflecting back to the particular lesson. 

Sacred Story Wondering Questions:

The purpose of the sacred story is the depiction of encountering God’s elusive presence.  Sacred stories help children find their own story – to remember and to “hope for a continuing relationship.”

The sacred story questions always are:

  • I wonder what part of this story you like best?
  • I wonder what is the most important part?
  • I wonder what part of the story is about you or has you in it?
  • I wonder if there is any part of this story we can leave out and still have all the story you need?

The first and third questions are affective, inviting a personal response, the second and fourth are intellectual (analytical), inviting a community “negotiation.” 

In a CGS presentation, the questions on the life of Christ presentations explore God’s purposes and people’s responses, as in these questions from The Visit of the Magi: 

“I wonder why the Magi had been looking for signs of a Messiah?” 
“I wonder what it might mean that a special star in the sky guided their way?”  
“The magi went to visit the king in Jerusalem, expecting to find Jesus there.  I wonder why God chose the tiny city of Bethlehem, instead of Jerusalem?”
“What does this tell us about Jesus?  Who has he come for?”

Parable Wondering Questions:

Berryman: “This pattern of communication in the parable is the closest we can come to the actual voice of Jesus.  This very different and curious kind of communication must be included for children to hear the best approximation of the voice of Jesus during the time of their language formation.”  

The parable questions can vary, but usually include:  

I wonder what this could really be?

I wonder where this could really be? 

In CGS, a typical parable question is,“I wonder what Jesus could be trying to tell us about the Kingdom of God?”

In a CGS Scripture presentation, the wondering questions are asked after the presentation and all point to the essential elements of the parable. In Godly Play, questions are asked during the presentation, and it is often not apparent where they are leading. Berryman says there are reasons for these seemingly randomquestions.

In Godly Play, each material used in a presentation is wondered about, including the box it is stored in and the colored felt “mat.” Berryman says, “Wondering about each of the items in the materials (I wonder what this blue could be?) is akin to the ‘free association’ exercise in psychoanalysis, opening up our minds to a more creative place of inspiration.”

In CGS, the words of Scripture are the focus, and adding extraneous information is seen as detracting from the power of Scripture. In Godly Play: “In parable wondering there is a deliberate attempt to widen the narrative further. Effort is given to gradually and playfully animating this image, giving the sower a name, wondering how they feel, etc.”

And this question from the parable of the mustard seed also has a purpose: “I wonder if the birds have names?” Berryman says, “Identity, both of self and others is of great importance to children, and …naming birds can provide an opportunity to explore identity affirmations, questions, and concerns.”

Liturgical Action Wondering Questions: 

In Godly Play, “Liturgy helps express inner and outer existential realities in a way that allows others to participate.”

“We are discovering making connections and finding how we participate in this. This follows the functions of liturgy–to help us connect, to remember, and to participate.”

Questions include…

  • I wonder if you have ever come close to this in church?  
  • I wonder what happens when you see this in church?
  • I wonder who puts it there?

Note that though these are experiential questions, none are truly wondering questions. Without any instruction on the symbolic nature and meaning of liturgical actions, we can’t really wonder.

In CGS, signs from liturgy are introduced, with language that points to their meaning in the liturgical context. Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body.” Questions then explore the implications of the sign. Who was he giving this bread to? What was Jesus giving to us with these words? How did he do that in history?

Silence wondering questions:

In Godly Play silence enables contemplation. “The ability to contemplate is the foundation of wonder, which opens the creative process, which in turn gives us life.”

  • I wonder where the silence materials are?
  • I wonder where the silence is?
  • I wonder where the silence comes from?
  • I wonder how silence speaks?

In CGS, silence is offered as a gift, a way to quiet our heart and mind and listen to God.  There are no wondering questions for a time of silence.

The wondering questions of Godly Play are designed for the child to make meaning of his personal experiences. In CGS, the wondering questions are designed to lead to meditation on the actions of God in our world and our response.

The Practical Differences: A CGS and a Godly Play Session Outlined

As we have noted, looking at a CGS atrium and a Godly Play classroom highlights the similarities of two programs which both use hands-on materials as a basis for learning.  However, if you sit in on a session of each program, it quickly becomes apparent how different the two approaches are.  

A typical session in a CGS atrium includes brief presentations to a child or children who have asked to work with specific materials (or are suggested by their teacher). When the children arrive, they are individually greeted, then guided to choose a work. The bulk of the time in the atrium is spent by the child working independently with the materials made for each presentation. Art materials are available as a secondary way of response, as are journals for children who can read and write.  A brief gathering at the end of class may occur, usually including prayer and song.  The time is much less adult-directed than in a Godly Play classroom. In elementary-age atria, the children may plan and lead the group prayer time. The role of an adult is to act as guide, not instructor.  

In Godly Play, the pattern of the class time mimics the structure of the Eucharist: Arrival, the Word, the Eucharist, the Going Out.  

  • The Arrival or Getting Ready:  The children are greeted at the door and enter the group circle.  The children talk about their life and week until all children are present.  Then the group participates in a liturgical greeting, followed by a moment of silence.
  • The Word or the Lesson- The Storyteller brings the story materials from the shelf to the circle. The Storyteller tells the story using the materials, leads a time of wondering questions and discussion, then returns the story to the shelf. 

NOTE: A major difference- In Godly Play, the lesson is not read from the Bible, but is memorized from an official script and told as a story to the children.  The Bible may not be referenced as the source of the story. 
In CGS, the lesson is read from a Bible that sits prominently in the room. The reading is not referred to as a story, but as the Holy Scripture.  Each of the hands-on materials include Scripture booklets of the passage for the lesson, which a child can read or have read to him/her.   

  • Work Time– After the presentation is finished and the box is put away, the children in the circle, one by one, choose their work, (if they can’t name a choice when the leader asks them, they have to sit in the circle until they go around, then they are given a 2ndchance, etc.).  
  • The Feast– At a signal from the adult, the children put away their work.  The snack is prepared (napkins, food, cup) and distributed. A prayer is said- individual and communal thanks for the feast.

NOTE: The snack, or feast, is a model of the Eucharist in Godly Play.  This model emphasizes the horizontal relationship with our neighbors, but does not teach the traditional understanding of the Eucharist as partaking of Jesus’ life.  In CGS, a child’s meditation on the Scriptures and liturgy using the prepared materials is the child’s response to the Word. Specific lessons on the liturgy prepare the child to take Eucharist during the worship service. 

  • Dismissal and Blessing — The children get ready to leave, then the adult leaders give individual blessings to the children.

A practical problem of this model is that so much time is spent in the group presentation, the group rituals (greetings, blessings, choosing work) and snack that very little time is left for work. This model is often used in church Sunday school hours, when the class time is only 45 minutes to an hour. Many Godly Play practitioners report that children seldom work with the materials.  

The materials are sometimes (not officially) called props or visual aids, so there is much confusion as to their use.  The materials are stored in a box and returned to the shelf, seeming to create closure to the lesson.  Many and varied art materials are supplied, and a page in the Godly Play training manual, Supporting Children during the Response Time is only about art responses.  This is in accordance with Berryman’s focus on creativity and the imagination and creative play as part of the “coming near” and “making meaning” experience.  These, combined with the limited time frame for work, make it difficult to do anything other than an art response.  

As you can see, the Godly Play session is highly structured, with most of the time being directed by the adults. CGS, following the Montessori model, allows the child self-direction during the session, with the adult acting as a guide only when a child needs assistance.  

Though the two approaches look superficially similar, Godly Play and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd are different both in theology and in practice.  The Godly Play approach is based on an individualistic and experiential theology of our relationship with God. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd approach is based on God’s revelation of Godself to us through covenant, God’s gift and our response.  While Godly Play seeks to help children make meaning of their lives, CGS seeks to help children fall in love with Jesus and seek to follow him. These different theologies shape what is said in the presentations, the direction of the discussions, and the work that takes place in the rooms.  Even when using the same or similar materials, the lessons themselves are different and are geared to different ends.  Let’s not confuse the two.  


Berryman, Jerome:

Godly Play: A Way of Religious Education. HarperCollins Publishers, 1991

Teaching Godly Play: The Sunday Morning Handbook. Abingdon Press, 1995

Young Children and Worship, with Sonja Stewart, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989

The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future/ Morehouse Publishing, 2013

Becoming Like a Child: The Curiosity of Maturity beyond the Norm. Church Publishing, 2017

Cavalletti, Sofia:

 The Religious Potential of the Child. Liturgy Training Publications, 1992

The Religious Potential of the Child, 6-12 years old. Liturgy Training Publications, 2002

The Good Shepherd and the Child: A Joyful Journey(with Coulter, Gobbi, Montanaro, Rojcewicz).  Liturgy Training Publications, 2014

Terrien, Samuel The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978 

Yalom, Irvin, Existential Psychotherapy. Basic Books, 1980.

Occasional Papers is a publication of the Center for Children and Theologycopyright © 2018 

This paper is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the publisher’s written permission. 

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